Anniversaries can mean anything, really: revelry, remembrance, regret. It is marked by homages of love and resolve, of faith and friendship. In celebrations of weddings or births, college graduations or even death, they are our annual reminders of what to be thankful for, what we have lost, or what we have gained. Like most of our lives marked by triumphs and tragedies, these anniversaries appear noted on calendars wherever they may fall in a year, and remind us to reflect on where we’ve been and, in the most optimistic of sense, where we strive to go.
In craft beer, anniversaries address the passing of time between the brewery’s founding and the present, and is often a celebration that touches the hallmarks of all such celebrations: On a significant date, a special beer is released (and often bottled and distributed); There’s an inspiration to reflect or brew something out of the ordinary; There’s some sort of party.
For Nate Lanier, co-founder and head brewer at Monson, Massachusetts’ Tree House Brewing Co., anniversaries tap into a creative space that’s somewhat inaccessible during any other brewing session.
“Anniversaries stir up feelings of nostalgia and reverence for our past,” he told me. “They spark spontaneity; the thought of a special date gets the creative juices flowing in a way they may not otherwise flow throughout the year. That's the beauty of it. I never know what we might create when I walk into the brewery in the morning, and that's a special feeling and an invigorating way to carry out my working life.”
Some of the world’s most sought-after beers on any year’s given beer calendar are anniversary beers. Firestone-Walker, makers of some of the finest barrel-aged beers, marks their yearly remembrance with an anniversary beer each autumn. 2016’s edition, named XX, denotes the brewery’s 20th anniversary. The beer, a blend of five beers from their Proprietors Vintage Series, was selected from a group of over a dozen winemakers who tried their hand at a blend.
Matt Brynildson at Firestone-Walker calls the anniversary “experience a very special time” at the brewery. “It is a reminder that we made it through another year of growth and development and this blending experience provides us a chance to pause and reflect,” he said.
Even as one of the world’s most decorated brewers, he calls the blending experience “humbling.”
South Carolina’s Westbrook Brewing Co. first created its most famous brew, an imperial stout called Mexican Cake, for their first anniversary.”
“Our Barrel Aging program, and the Anniversary blends in particular, are something I am very proud of,” he said. “I feel like the Anniversary Blend has taken on a real life of its own and it is impossible for me to pick a favorite. Comparing one year to the next is always seen through the prism of time. I feel like our connection to the Central Coastal wine community has become stronger and the winemakers who create the blend have become more familiar with the process.”
Brynildson called the winemakers who help with the annual blends “truly gifted sensory magicians.” High praise from a five-time winner of brewer of the year at the Great American Beer Festival.
The inspiration for the beer can come from spontaneity or heavy planning or complete ceding of control. Boulder, Colorado’s Avery Brewing is known for creating some boundary stretching beers because of its extensive barrel program, but the anniversary ales tend to throw even those oft-ignored rules out of the equation.
“To plan the beer we usually just do a round table and talk about what everyone has been wanting to experiment with,” said Josh Rapp, Brewhouse Manager at Avery Brewing. “The inspiration is really just whatever we think will be good. All sorts of things go into that. Beers that we've liked recently from other brewers, whatever ingredients are hot currently, things that we think will be popular in the future or whatever pops randomly in to Andy's [Parker, Chief Barrel Herder at Avery] head.”
“[For F-W] The inspiration comes from connecting with the winemakers and the thrill of giving control over to them and trusting them to make our most important release of the year,” said Brynildson. “It also comes from the challenge of providing better beers for the group to work with every year. What we have created together is sacred and I do everything I can to protect the spirit of the blend.”
While not every brewery brews an annual homage to their longevity, many do.
South Carolina’s Westbrook Brewing Co. first created its most famous brew, an Imperial Stout called Mexican Cake, for their first anniversary. The beer returns yearly, as do anniversary beers, all to positive reviews, hundreds of ISO requests, and yielding substantial return on trading forums. This year’s, Westbrook brewed an hazelnut chocolate imperial stout.
Anniversary releases sometimes become staples of consumers beer calendars: Stone’s annual release happens in the summer time and is usually some aggressive form of India Pale Ale; Great Divide had produced their annual celebratory beer for 22 years.
Other breweries have relied solely on the benchmark anniversaries: Dogfish Head released a 20th anniversary golden ale brewed with cherries to commemorate their platinum anniversary; Sierra Nevada did their beer at 30 years; German mainstay Weihenstephaner honored the 500th anniversary of the Bavarian Purity Law with a Kellerbier appropriately named 1516.
It’s a celebration that straddles the line between making loyal customers happy and providing brewers free reign.”
Each of these beers, whether they celebrate a significant anniversary or not, are worth purchasing, sharing with a loved one, and considered thoughtfully. They’re a work of love. But more than just great fellowship and beer is borne out of these releases. Often, there’s a party.
For their 24th year, Avery is throwing their annual party in their typical style: live music, huge taplist with the proceeds going to a favorite non-profit (this year it’s American Rivers). Firestone Walker holds a party as soon as the anniversary beer is packaged.
“The winemaker whose blend won the competition, comes wearing the crown which is passed from one winning winemaker to the next,” Brynildson told me. “It’s one of our best events of the year.”
Anniversaries can be the driving force behind a brewery’s yearly calendar, but, to some, it’s a celebration that straddles the line between making loyal customers happy and providing brewers a little free reign.
“Our fans seem to like having an extra unique brand that they can get in a bottle and it's a good outlet for our creativity. Even if our Anniversary Beers didn't sell well I think we would still do one for the tap room every year,” added Rapp.
For some it’s a cathartic, re-energizing experience.
“In short, I don't plan for anniversary beers,” said Lanier. “They just happen, and to me that's a beautiful thing.”